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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A review of Benjamin Titus Robert's book "Ordaining Women"

When a book released in 1891 is still in print almost 120 years later, one would expect it to offer timeless truths on the topic. Indeed, in the preface he states,
I have purposely avoided all appeals to sentiment and to "the spirit of the age," and based my arguments mainly on the Word of God.
But on the very next page, he starts out the first chapter by making a comparison between the philosophy that relegated entire classes of humans to a state of subjection in slavery, and the philosophy that relegates the entire class of womankind into a state of subjection in which she is not allowed to lead the church of Christ. In short, he makes the whole issue of the Biblical Role of Women one of prejudice. As for appeals to sentiment, he asks (all punctuation as in the original),
. . . is it not possible that the current sentiment as to the position which WOMAN should be permitted to occupy in the Church of Christ may also be wrong? Reader, will you admit this possibility?
The book is also rather dated by the dire picture it paints in Chapter 2 of the legal state of woman's domestic situation--a situation that has been greatly ameliorated since then--without regard, I would propose, to the availability of ordination to women, and not one that has any direct bearing on what the Bible teaches on the subject.

The book is dated in other ways, which Bishop Roberts perhaps cannot be expected to have foreseen. He writes, for instance, "The mother who brings up her children to obey her is sometimes obliged to use the switch upon the refractory child." But as women have attained more and more influence, 'switching' refractory children has gone from being an obligation of dutiful parents to being grounds for removing a refractory child from the home, and landing the offending parent in jail. How ironic that the very women that Bishop Roberts lauded as being equal to the task of moulding the laws and customs of this country should be at the forefront in making the switch.

I really should quote the entire section in which this sentence appears, as it shows how far Bishop Roberts had yet to come in removing sexist language from his vocabulary:
Words are arbitrary signs of ideas. And often the same word represents things which have no relation to each other. The mother who brings up her children to obey her is sometimes obliged to use the switch upon the refractory child. The railroad man, by turning the switch wrong, wrecked the train. The fashionable woman when she buys a switch is careful to have it match her own hair. The farmer cuts his wheat with a cradle. His wife rocks the baby in a cradle.
Note that although he sees child discipline to be an equal prerogative of the female parent, he doesn't envision a farmer having a husband who rocks their baby, nor a woman guiding a train.

We finally encounter in Chapter Four the eponymous topic of the book. While he earlier expressed an appreciation for the Quakers' acceptance of woman preachers, he here makes objection to their stopping short of ordaining their preachers, which practice he sees as clearly taught in the Scriptures. While he's at it, he takes the Quakers to task for every other area of theology in which he perceives them to be deficient. Clearly, he is not suggesting we emulate the Quakers any farther than their view on the Equal Role of Women. Chapter Four continues with a similar critique of the Roman view of ordination. Ironically, Bishop Roberts undercuts the doctrine of the very denomination which he founded--the Free Methodists--by pointing out that there is no biblical support for the supervisory office of ordained Bishop! And finally, by equating Ordination with any commissioning service for someone called to serve God in a specific way, he undercuts the whole thesis of his book, as women in this sense have been no doubt been ordained from the earliest days of the church. Whether they were ever ordained to the Bishopric, however, is another question entirely.

In Chapter Six, Bishop Roberts gives away his approach. Speaking of Gal. 3:28, he writes,
If this gives to men of all nations the right to become ministers of the gospel, it gives to women exactly the same right. Make this the KEY TEXT upon this subject, and give to other passages such a construction as will make them agree with it, and all is harmony. . . Why should not this be done?
Well, it should not be done for the simple reason that this is eisegesis, not exegesis. We need an understanding that will fit ALL passages on the subject, without hammering square pegs into round holes so that they, too, will fit the round hammer.

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